Tag Archives: civil rights

11/22/63 – Stephen King

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I finished 11/22/63 at 4 a.m. It’s a doorstop of nearly 850 pages—and it’s very very good. I have admired Stephen King’s work, the excerpts and articles and the classic book about writing, but this was the first novel of his I’ve read. Can’t handle horror. Have no skin for it. Horror haunts me and creeps me out so I was never brave enough to tackle Carrie or The Shining or any of the mega-bestsellers that made King’s reputation. 11/22/63 is spooky and weird but it is also an addictive story that pulls you through from open to Afterword because you want to find out what happens and you know the people King has created and their fate is important to you.

It is possible to stop right there. That’s what books are supposed to do so you should read this one. (Maybe you could take it in large bites so you don’t have to stay up until 4 a.m. though.) I’m not quite ready to abandon the experience and move on so a few words about the world of 11/22/63 will allow me to relive it a bit. The fiction is a time travel and the present-day hero steps back into 1958 to begin his adventures. He is reluctant—the book does follow Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and you can sort that out as you read it. But he is intrigued and quickly hooked. A dying friend reveals the portal to 1958 and entrusts Jake Epping, a high school teacher, with his life’s mission: travel back in time and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.

Epping takes a stack of 1950s silver certificate dollars, a fake i.d. and identity as George Amberson, and a sheaf of notes about Oswald’s life and the sporting events of the time and, eventually, assumes the challenge. But first he tests the theory by foiling a brutal domestic crime that affected the janitor of his high school—to see if the time travel actions really hold in the present. It works and, with enormous trepidation and curiosity, he sets out. Along the way, Epping encounters life in the age of sock hops, real Co’ Colas with cane sugar, people who say “Can I help you?” when you need help and don’t lock their front doors. He places unlikely bets that he wins to bankroll his exploits—when you know the outcome in advance this is not hard. He falls in love with and acquires a cool ragtop, a snub revolver and a fiancée and tries to remember to ditch 21st century slang along with his cell phone.

The magical world of the 50s is, in reality, not all that magical, as Epping finds out. People are violent, racist, ignorant, trapped in dirt and poverty, and die of physical illnesses for which there are not yet cures. People are also innocent, open, caring, in touch with an essential kindness, and accustomed to savoring life at a human, not a high-tech, pace. Epping likes it so much he considers staying once his task is complete. But the past is a living entity in King’s mind and it doesn’t relinquish its hold on history lightly. Malevolent things occur and the stakes rise sharply. Epping prevents some horrors from happening but other, equally vicious and ghastly acts exact an exorbitant price. Gain is offset by wrenching loss. Spooky stuff drives the plot and consumes Epping’s attention. Meals, clothes, guns, gas and rents are cheap but heroism will cost you everything.

There is incredible research in this novel and the world Epping visits is authentic and fascinating. It’s almost history—but it isn’t. It’s extraordinary Stephen King, which is, in some ways, even better.

11/22/63: A Novel   Stephen King | Scribner   2011


The Help – Kathryn Stockett

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Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter tell their own lives as a history of extreme racism in the Deep South that still manages to shock, despite our familiarity with it. Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s was a terrible place to be a maid, a dangerous place to speak your mind and a swamp of unexamined prejudice and bigotry masquerading as privilege. The Help is the interwoven story of a restless white woman who asked questions and the many black women who suffered daily degradation and still managed to keep shreds of hope alive.

Aibileen loves the children she cares for and quietly teaches them to respect themselves and see people, not skin color. Minny cooks like a dream and has a quick tongue, a wicked streak and a temper. She can’t stay employed because she is “uppity”—she speaks her mind aloud—and sometimes worse. Skeeter is too tall, hungry for more than her small-minded small town can offer and overwhelmed by a mother who manages her every move to help her attract a husband.

Kathryn Stockett is so good at voices that the three storytellers are as real as neighbors and elicit the empathy we reserve for friends. There is real peril in the simple actions they take, real consequences that can wreck or end a life in a heartbeat. Horrible things happen in the black community, from well-known news events like the murder of Medgar Evers in front of his wife and children, to unremarked cruelty like the blinding of a promising young black man for no reason at all. The white women of the local League are snooty, cliquish, unabashedly racist, fearful, ignorant and altogether repugnant.

The courage to speak up, to tell the truth, to refuse to be treated like garbage–or less than–is most often rewarded with joblessness, jail, maliciously ruined reputations, beatings, terrorizing and heartbreak. Most often but not always. Times are changing, painfully but inexorably. When the help and their anxious scribe risk putting the truth down on paper for an anonymous tell-all book about what a maid’s life is like in Jackson, no one can be sure of the consequences.

I waited a long time to pick up this book. Sometimes I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of a book that explodes into the market. I let The Help sit on the shelf for more than a year after receiving it. But it lives up to its hype. It was funny, sad, infuriating and hopeful. The women, bad bitches and good guys, are wonderfully drawn. I should have read it sooner. Glad I finally did.

The Help   Kathryn Stockett | Amy Einhorn Books 2009